Wasteful Food Consumption: Trends in Food and Packaging Waste


John Thogersen (1993) ,"Wasteful Food Consumption: Trends in Food and Packaging Waste", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 1, eds. W. Fred Van Raaij and Gary J. Bamossy, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 434-439.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 1, 1993      Pages 434-439


John Thogersen, Aarhus School of Business, Denmark

[I am grateful to Folke Olander for comments on an earlier draft of this paper.]


In the course of a few years, the issue of the adverse environmental impact of private consumption has shifted from being a question of interest only to a select group of experts and committed individuals to being at the core of public and political attention. In many countries, the increasing amounts of household solid waste collected by public services (or littered at public places) are now perceived by politicians and consumers alike as a problem in urgent need of a solution. More than any other item, packaging is the focus of this attention. Both in Europe and the USA we are witnessing a surge in political activities targeting packaging as a means to reduce the amount of waste (cf. Cairncross, 1992). [Germany's "Duale System Deutschland" is only the first of a new generation of packaging laws under way in many European countries, making it the responsibility of the producers that their packaging be recycled (Anonymous, 1992; Cairncross, 1992). The European Commission is preparing a directive which will eventually diffuse some of the basic principles in the German law to all the member states (French, 1991).]

Of course, the household's waste generation depends both on the solid goods that are acquired by the household, and on the use and disposition practices favoured by the household members. With a metaphor from production, we could say that the household's waste production depends on the technology whereby the household chooses to satisfy its needs and wants. The same meaning can be expressed in the vocabulary of consumer research by saying that the waste production depends on the household's consumption style (Uusitalo, 1986). In both cases, the message is that the household's waste generation is a function of several factors, some external and some internal to the household: the available market offerings, the physical, institutional, and social living environment, the needs, involvements, resources, and abilities of the household (cf. e.g, Dholakia, Dholakia & Firat, 1983; Ellen, Wiener & Cobb-Walgren, 1991; Lavik, 1991; Pieters, 1991; Th°gersen, 1992).

Understandably, industries producing and using packaging are somewhat worried by the plummeting reputation of packaging, caused by the association between packaging and the waste problems. The reaction of the industry has mostly been defensive, arguing that the development of modern packaging industry responds to needs and demands of the consumer and the society and that the industry delivers highly valued services. Further, it has been argued that modern packaging saves resources, both by preserving the contents of the packages (which is most often food), and through improvements in the materials and energy efficiency of the packaging (e.g., APME & PWMI, n.d.). Such claims are difficult to substantiate, and some members of the industry have realised that they loose trustworthiness if they refuse to take at least part of the responsibility for the waste problems. Without abstaining from lobby- and PR-activities, these firms have chosen more offensive responses (e.g., ERRA, 1991; Flemington, 1991), i.e. by proposing solutions for the packaging waste problems which demands the active commitment and cooperation of all the stakeholders (consumers, public authorities, and industry).

It is a major problem for the parties concerned with packaging waste that the knowledge about packaging's contribution to the waste problem is piecemeal, and the information that gets disseminated in most cases is based on myths or vested interests. Hence, it would be premature in this paper to go for solutions for the packaging waste problems. At the present stage, a much more appropriate objective is to seek an unbiased understanding of the character of the problem. This is what I seek to establish in the paper.

In the following, the correspondence between household waste production and consumption styles is assessed indirectly, analysing correlations between descriptive background variables, which contribute to variations in consumption style, and the arising of current solid waste from the households. Special attention is directed towards understanding the role of packaging in waste generation. In order to fulfil this objective we will focus as much at the content as on the packaging itself. Here, I concentrate on the largest packaged item: Food. [Because of its share of the household budget and high packaging intensity (Gregermann, 1988), cited from (Holland, Pfirrmann & Jacobs, 1989), food is the largest contributor to the household's packaging waste.]


Published research into variations in the waste generation of private households generally relies on aggregate data, the exception being a few analyses by "The Garbage Project" at the University of Arizona, USA (McGuire, 1984). [Probably, micro-analyses of the relationship between household and waste characteristics have been initiated by waste planning authorities in many countries, but generally they are not published.] Some analyses relate national data on waste generation to aggregate census data and/or economic indicators (e.g., Uusitalo, 1986; OECD, 1991). Others use primary waste-generation data, collected in limited city quarters, but relate these to aggregate census data covering the same quarters (Phillips, Restrepo & Rathje, 1984; Richardson & Havlicek Jr., 1978). If proper specification and aggregation procedures are followed, the aggregate level relationships can be an unbiased representation of the relationship at household level (Langbein & Lichtman, 1978), but without studies correlating personal waste and background data, control for biases is not possible.

Uusitalo (1986) studied the relationship between the purchase of food items with various processing levels and the amount and composition of post-consumption waste in the USA and European countries from around 1960 to the early 1980's, using purely descriptive methods (that is, without applying any formal correlation analysis). She concluded that the most important factor explaining the development in household waste production (the amount as well as the composition) is the degree to which the dominating consumption style is based on the use of highly processed goods and services, as a substitute for home produced goods based on raw materials. (This substitution process she calls "modernisation of consumption"). Put in another way, it is Uusitalo's hypothesis that the development (growth and changing composition) in household waste production is primarily caused by changes in the technology and structure of (food) consumption.

The discussion of environmental problems connected to household waste has mainly concerned its volume (because of the implications for landfill and/or incinerator capacity) while problems connected to specific items or materials in the waste (that is, its composition) have been given lower priority in the discussion. Consumers and policy makers have focused on excessive packaging and one-way packaging as causes of problems much more than on, e.g., materials types. This priority also sets the agenda for this paper.



An alternative to Uusitalo's hypothesis concerning the volume of waste could be that the growth in consumption per se is the primary cause of growth in household waste production. This hypothesis, which I will call "the income hypothesis", implies that the traditional consumption style is just as "wasteful" as the modernised, provided the consumption opportunities (the real disposable incomes) of the households are equal. [And disregarding the possible environmental impacts of a changing composition of the waste.] The status of this hypothesis may be determined by means of aggregate data.

The increase in private consumption and household waste

The question, whether the amount of waste generated in the private household can be explained by the household's consumption opportunities, can be approached both by time series and cross sectional analysis. Over time, the income hypothesis implies that the growth in the generation of household waste production is lower (or at least not higher) than the growth in income. Cross-sectionally, it implies a positively sloped, linear relationship between income and waste production. Table 1 and Figure 1 display the two relationships for a group of OECD-countries.

The amount of household waste - per capita and in total - grew rapidly in the post-war decades in Europe and North America (see Young, 1991; cf. also Table 1). But only in few OECD-countries (Denmark, Finland, Switzerland, Eireland, Spain, Portugal, Greece) did household waste grow faster than incomes between 1975 and 1988. [The figures for Finland, Denmark, and Portugal cover short periods and may not be totally representative for the development in the whole period.] In this group are the four countries with the lowest GDP/capita in the whole set. In the rest of the countries, including all the large industrialised countries, incomes grew faster than waste (i.e., the income hypothesis was confirmed). In the former West Germany and the Netherlands household waste production practically did not grow at all in the period.

Table 1 shows that, with the possible exceptions of Switzerland, Denmark, and Finland, it is not necessary to postulate changes in consumption styles in order to explain the growth in household waste production in the the most affluent OECD-countries. The increase in household waste in these countries is less that what could be expected, considering the increase in private consumption following the general increase in disposable incomes. However, in the industrializing countries in Europe, the income hypothesis was not confirmed by these data.



Of course, nobody can deny that consumption styles in the industrialised countries have undergone rapid structural and technological changes in recent decades. However, Table 1 indicates that in most OECD-countries, and especially in the most affluent of these countries, the structural and technological changes have had a neutral or even negative impact on waste generation in the private households! The growth in household waste in most countries seems to be caused by a richer population, consuming more.

Based on these observations, in cross-section data we should expect to find a positive correlation between GDP/capita and household waste per capita. On the other hand it is unlikely that all international variations in household waste generation can be explained by income differences. Cultural differences in general and differences in consumption styles between cultures in particular are bound to influence waste generation. Additionally, due to the lack of a precise international standard concerning waste statistics a large error term is likely to appear in an international cross section analysis.

By and large, these expectations are fulfilled by Figure 1. A regression analysis on the data showed that the correlation between GDP/capita and MSW/capita is significant (p = .0006) with a positive slope of 31.5, R2 = .51. Hence the income hypothesis explains 51% of the variation in household waste production in this sample of OECD-countries. The unexplained variation may be due to variations in consumption style, measurement error, or other factors.

If two countries within a relatively narrow range of GDP/capita are compared, variations in "other factors" may cover the influence of income on household waste generation. But when we look at a sufficiently large sample of countries or a sufficiently large range of income differences, the income effect clearly manifests itself.

However, this conclusion may be questioned by one comparative study, comparing countries with an even larger difference in GDP/capita than between any two countries in Figure 1. Phillips et al. (1984) studied urban households in Mexico and the USA around 1980, based on primary waste data. Consistent with the income hypothesis, a positive relationship was found between income (in census tracts) and waste generation in both the American and the Mexican sample. But surprisingly, upper income families in the USA produced less waste than low income families in Mexico. [Average total refuse production (kg./household/day) in USA and Mexico City, around 1980. TABLE.]

Few demographic data are given in Phillips et al. (1984). Probably, the average family size is higher in the Mexican than in the U.S. sample. [The birth rate in Mexico was twice that of the USA around 1980 (cf. Danmarks Statistik: Statistisk Arbog 1983 ((Statistical Yearbook 1983))). Additionally, it is presumably more common to have three generations living together in Mexico than in the USA.] But even though correction for family size may mean that household waste generation per capita is higher in the USA, the Mexican figures are far from what we would expect, considering both the income hypothesis and the modernisation hypothesis. Like the time-series data for most countries in Table 1, these figures indicate that the structural and technological changes which facilitated a modern consumption style may have reduced the volume of household waste. According to these data, in some cases it may even offset the increase accounted for by the income hypothesis.

The composition of the waste: Main trends

As mentioned earlier, household waste may have adverse environmental impacts, not only because of its volume, but also due to the composition of the waste. The fraction of household waste which is classified as outright hazardous (solubles, cleaners, paints, pesticides, oil products, batteries, etc.) is small, probably only a few percent of the total. However, due to chemical reactions during treatment, non-hazardous compounds in the waste may produce very toxic emissions from waste treatment facilities (e.g., small amounts of dioxides produced when PVC is incinerated). Hence, the evaluation of the environmental impact of a consumption style should include both the amount and the composition of waste to which it leads. I will return to the discussion of the consequences of the changing composition with regard to the toxicity of the waste. But the development in the composition of the household waste will be studyed with the aim of getting insight into the causes of growth in waste production. Therefore, I will look at the development in the two fractions of waste which are most closely related to the packaging-issue: food and packaging waste.

Packaging waste

Phillips et al. (1984) found substantial differences in the composition of the waste between their Mexican and U.S. samples. The U.S. households discarded more than twice as much packaging as food waste (by weight). In the Mexican sample the proportion of packaging to food waste was exactly the reverse of the U.S. case: They discarded twice as much food waste as packaging. The (slight) exception was a sample of very wealthy Mexican families (who threw out almost as much packaging as food waste). Phillips et al. associate these differences in waste composition with differences in the "industrialization of the food base"; the U.S. households buying more processed foods, and the Mexican more traditional raw materials for home produced food.

Several other registrations of the materials- or the products composition of the waste confirm that the waste bins in the industrialised countries are increasingly filled with packaging (Henion, 1976; Uusitalo, 1986). In the late 1980s, packaging amounted to a third of municipal solid waste in (West) Germany and the USA, and a fifth of household waste in the Netherlands (Young, 1991) and Denmark (NOAH, 1989).

Food waste

In absolute terms, the average (urban) family in Phillips et al.'s (1984) Mexican sample threw out three to four times as much food waste as the average U.S. family. This alone explains why the former generated more waste in total than the later. However, the Mexican households did not discard more edible food than the U.S. households. "Instead, the difference lies in the amount of bones, trimmings, pits, and fruit and vegetable skins that are discarded as food is prepared" (Phillips, 1984, p. 145). The Mexican families buy a lot of inedible organic matter with their (fresh) food. The most of this matter has been removed from the processed foods that families in the United States buy more frequently.

The contribution of food spill to household current solid waste varies considerably also among industrialised nations. In the middle to late 1980s food spill was, e.g., 8% of the MSW in the USA (Lewis, 1989) and 22% of the household waste in Denmark (Milj°styrelsen, Skov- og Naturstyrelsen & Danmarks Statistik, 1990).

As mentioned earlier, Phillips et al. (1984) explain the differences in the composition of the household waste by different degrees of industrialization of the food base. If this explanation is correct, food is a decreasing proportion of the household waste in the industrialised countries, not only because other waste-items grow more rapidly, but also because a smaller proportion of the food bought gets wasted.

There are few data available to test this hypothesis. I am only aware of one source that reports the development in food waste over a long period of time, and this source tend to confirm the hypothesis (Rathje, 1984): The proportion of the acquired solid food that was discarded in American households was halved between 1918 and the early 1980's; going from between 25% and 30% to between 10% and 15% of the total. [Because of the growing income, the total amount of food waste per capita still increased over this period.]

Data of this kind has been taken as evidence (especially by the packaging industry) that the modernisation of consumption styles also has produced environmental benefits: The increased processing and "packaging intensity" of the average food has reduced the proportion of the food that is wasted. However, judged from the comparative Mexican-U.S. data, this conclusion is only partly justified. More than reducing the amount of food waste, the modernisation of consumption (or industrialization of the food base) has changed the location of waste generation in the production and consumption cycle: The non-edible parts of industrially processed food have become industrial waste instead of household waste. [In itself, this change of location may be either good or bad (from an environmental perspective). If it is not recycled, the concentration of organic food waste at factories increases the strain on the environment. However, the opportunities for recycling are much better at factories where the waste is fresher and cleaner.] Nobody has as yet shown that this change has resulted in less food waste in total. Further, to the degree that this can be proven, the packaging and processing industries must share the honour with modern preservation technologies used in the kitchen.

The composition of the waste: Counteracting tendencies

Meal preparation as an expressive activity

Even though increasing modernisation undoubtedly is a dominating trend in the development of the consumption style in industrialised (and industrialising) countries, there are counteracting tendencies. Families whose daily consumption style is highly modernised may at special occasions (week-ends, celebrations, guests) perceive the preparation of meals as an expressive activity for which they prefer to use fresh raw materials rather than processed goods (e.g., (Grunert & Kristensen, 1990; Hansen, 1986; Uusitalo, 1986). This means that observable consumption styles will seldom be fully modernised (or fully traditional), but are more likely characterised by different degrees of modernisation. The analysts agree that expressive home-production is a growing phenomenon, albeit growing at a slower pace than the modernisation of the consumption style.

On the one hand, the growth in expressive home-production of food hampers the increase in modernisation (and hence its potential adverse environmental impacts). On the other hand, the detailed garbage analyses carried out by "The Garbage Project" produced evidence that a "mixed" consumption style, characterised by a very varied diet, may generate more waste than "pure" forms (Rathje, 1984).

"The Garbage Project" found that "the more fresh foods purchased, the lower the percentage of fresh foods lost" (Rathje, 1984, p. 19). Pre-prepared packaged foods were found to be wasted at low rates, but at the same time, "households that buy the most pre-prepared food waste the highest percentage of fresh produce" (Rathje, 1984, p. 19). Rathje mention several concrete examples which illustrate that the more redundant the diet, the lower the rate of food losses. In other words, households that consume more of the same foods from day to day throw out less once-edible food than more experimenting households.

The larger food spill in more variety seeking households is understandable given the higher risk of disappointing recipes and lower competence when preparing a meal from a new recipe. This phenomenon serves as an illustration of the point that the impact of modern packaging on waste generation is modified by the consumer's life and consumption style. The environmental impact of packaging should not be reduced to a technical issue.

Trends in packaging technology

On solely logistic grounds, "light-weighting" has become an important trajectory in the development of packaging: Lighter and less material and energy consuming packages are developed through substitution of materials (plastics and aluminium for paper, cardboard, glass, and steel) (Jacobsen, 1991) and improved design (e.g., Anonymous, 1991; Erickson, 1988). Examples illustrating this trend are often mentioned by spokepersons from the packaging industry when the environmental impacts of modern packaging is discussed. But there is a need of independent analysis that can substantiate the implications of this trend for the garbage outcomes (and other environmental impacts).

Because of lack of historical registrations, the only way to get a picture of the development in previous decades would be through archeological studies. In fact, this method has been tried, and it found evidence which lend support to the claims that the development in packaging technology have compensated for the increasing "packaging intensity" in the last two decades. Archeological escavations of the Mallard North Landfill in Illinois, USA, found that refuse from 1986 contained no more plastics than refuse from the early 1970's, in spite of the increased use of plastics in packaging and many other functions (Rathje, 1991).

Of course, the environmental implications of materials substitution in packaging cannot be judged from registrations of waste volumes alone. The materials vary with regard to environmental characteristics too. When an aluminium can substitutes a soda glass bottle, energy is saved in transportation, but the extra energy used for the production of the aluminium container is many times the savings in transportation (Young, 1991). Plastic covers an array of materials with very varying environmental characteristics. PVC has become infamous primarily because of the emissions that result when burning it at waste incineration facilities (dioxides and hydrochloric acid). Many plastics used for packaging contain small amounts of toxic additives (e.g., heavy metals) which add special attributes or colours to the material. The toxins may be emitted to the environment when the packaging decomposes through use or at a waste-treatment facility. At the other hand, the paper or cardboard material that plastics often substitutes is no saint either. If the paper material is clorine-bleached, the production process is a heavy water polluter in most cases, and the chlorine may produce dioxides in an incinerator. Also, the colours used for printing on paper and cardboard packaging usually contains the same heavy metals as the ones used for plastics. Compared to paper and cardboard, the most important environmental merits of plastics are that they are lighter and more durable. Conversely, the most important merits of paper and cardboard are that they are produced from a renewable source and that they are more easily recyclable.


Packaging nowadays is seen mostly as an environmental "sinner" because of its large and increasing contribution to household waste. This paper has not provided the final evidence to prove or refute this claim. However, it has proposed a frame of reference in which questions like this ought to be settled.

The point of departure of this paper is that the implications of packaging for household waste generation have to be judged in the perspective of the household's consumption style. Through the analysis of various data sets it was confirmed that cultural and household differences in consumption style have a substantial influence on both the volume and the composition of household waste.

One especially important hypothesis which was tested is that the growth in household waste production in the industrialised countries in recent decades is caused by the increasing processing of foods (and hence its increasing packaging intensity). In its simple form, this hypothesis was refused by the data. The growth in household current solid waste production in most industrialised countries can be explained by the growth in consumption. Further, differences in consumption opportunities explain the most of the international variation in household waste production between industrialised countries.

It is thought provoking that the countries in the sample with the lowest degree of industrialisation broke the pattern, the household waste generation growing faster than incomes and relative to income being relatively high by international comparison in absolute per capita terms. If this is not due to statistical error (which is very likely), an interesting question for future research would be whether this pattern is caused by some lawlike mechanism, like the transformation from industrial- to service economies, or the fast international diffusion of parts of the consumption style of the most affluent countries by multinational food- and beverage corporations.

However, the contribution of the increasing processing level of foods to the growth in waste generation cannot be assessed from analyses of household waste alone: An important characteristic of the development of what has been called "an industrialised food base" is that the distribution of labour between industry and the household is changing. Due to this development an increasing amount of potential organic waste is prevented from ever entering the household. Instead, inedible organic parts of the basic raw materials become industrial waste. Hence, in order to properly assess the environmental impact of this change in consumption style the whole production and consumption cycle has to be analysed. When the whole cycle is assessed, Uusitalo's (1986) claim that the modernisation of the consumption style has adverse environmental impacts may still be warranted.

If we focus on the household seen in isolation, there are trends in consumption style that make food waste grow slower and packaging waste grow faster than the overall waste production. However, there are also forces counteracting both these tendencies, and the long-term outcome is not clear at all. The increasing variation in food consumption, and specifically the increasing tendency to become "occasional gourmets", might result in more food waste. Among other things these observations illustrate the household's degrees of freedom with regard to waste generation within the available consumption alternatives. At the same time there are indications that the industry's striving for logistic optimisation (i.e., "light-weighting") have significantly reduced the amount of packaging waste. This illustrates the importance of supply characteristics, and industry strategies, for the household's waste generation.

The empirical foundation for the issues discussed in this paper is weak. Its most valuable contribution may be that it illustrates that important social and political issues may be settled through analyses that combine the kind of data traditionally preferred by social and behavioural scientists with data traditionally used in the technical sciences only. Hence, further analyses which improves the empirical foundation of the discussion of these issues are warranted before firm conclusions can be drawn.


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John Thogersen, Aarhus School of Business, Denmark


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 1 | 1993

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